Mae Tao Clinic: the best and worst of human nature

Note: All information in this post is based on my experience, conversations with a Mae Tao clinic staff member and the clinic's 2011 report. Be aware that there are some disturbing images and descriptions in this post. All photos were taken by Will Moyer I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands and ground my teeth together. No matter what, I vowed, I would not cry. Not now. There’d be time for tears later.

The man lying in front of me was the victim of a horrific act of violence. The left side of his face was covered in a patchwork of black and red, of skin wounded beyond recognition. His eyes blinked rapidly but he barely moved. His exposed torso was partially bandaged but the cloth strips didn’t conceal the extent of his burns, which crept down his chest and toward his abdomen. Mae Tao Clinic

I shouldn’t be here, I thought. This is invasive, inappropriate. It was not the first time the thought had crossed my mind since my friend Will and I arrived at Mae Tao Clinic earlier that morning.

The man stretched across the wooden table was a day laborer from Burma. He had been brought to Mae Tao Clinic with severe injuries from an acid attack that had been meant for his boss. The boss’ wounds were minimal, our clinic guide told us. The man lying before us while his wife and young child looked on had borne the brunt of the attack.

“His wife tells me he has trouble sleeping,” our guide, Jue, whispered when we turned away from the man. “The acid got into his ear so he has terrible pain in his head. Cannot sleep.”

As we walked out of the surgical unit, I looked back one last time and smiled at the man, even though I cringed at the sight of him. It wasn’t his mutilated body that caused me to shrink back. But to look at his face was to imagine his pain and be horrified that one human being could do this to another.

A crisis of conscience

When Will and I decided to go to Mae Sot, Thailand, for a few days for a visa run, Mae Tao Clinic (MTC) had been at the top of my list of places to see. I had read that the clinic provided assistance to Burmese refugees and migrant workers and was eager to see the work being done there.

Until visiting the MTC, I had never before come face-to-face with the cruel realities of poverty and brutality. I had read countless articles about the atrocities being committed against ethnic minorities in Burma, about the crowded refugee camps in which thousands of people are forced to live, the high costs of health care, the plights of migrant workers. None of those articles prepared me for what I saw at MTC: a man whose face had been mutilated by acid; premature babies born in extremely bare-bones, basic conditions; and a prosthetics ward where land mine victims await new limbs.

Land mine victims

When I first arrived at the clinic and saw people gathering outside the pharmacy and surgery areas, I felt a sudden pang of regret. This was a bad idea; I’m exploiting these people. My intention was to visit the clinic in the hopes of writing a piece about it, but suddenly I felt ashamed that I had been so eager to witness the suffering of other people.

And yet I also felt I had to. Having now spent nearly four months in Thailand since the beginning of 2012, I have gotten the distinct impression that there is a great deal of good being done here, but a great deal of suffering as well. I felt compelled to witness that, in order to better understand this part of the world, to grasp the horrors and the goodness happening in places like Mae Sot and, on a more personal level, understand what it was that had always drawn me to learn more about refugees and conflict zones.

By the end of the tour, my regrets were gone. It was one of the more important places I’ve visited in Asia and the experience left a profound impact on me.

The clinic

The MTC provides free health care to refugees, migrant workers, and poor Burmese people who cannot afford care at government hospitals. Treatments here range from eye exams to surgeries to reproductive health counseling, all of which might otherwise be out of reach for the patients who visit the clinic by the hundreds each day. The work here is funded by donations and they are facing a critical shortage this year - a $320,000 shortage, to be exact. Without additional funding, they will have to cut services and staff, of which they are already in limited supply.

Old woman getting eye exam

The maternity ward was one of our first stops on the tour. Nearly 3,000 babies were born at MTC last year. There is one delivery room, as well as a dedicated area for special needs babies. Expectant mothers sleep on wooden tables in a communal room. Some parents are too poor to buy clothes for their newborns. I am of the firm opinion that people who cannot afford clothes and health care for their children should not be having them, but as these women are already pregnant, that point is moot here.

Maternity ward

To think that this is how so many infants come into this world is heartbreaking. I felt deep despair considering all the challenges these babies are up against before even leaving the womb. Many of them will likely grow up in poverty and in dangerous border zones, and on their first night in this world, they sleep in a hot, crowded room without the comforts of a private crib or bassinette, or the safety of a proper hospital bed.

To be clear, I think the work being done at MTC is remarkable and vital for the tens of thousands of people who visit it each year. I applaud their efforts at providing safe care to the many, many patients who rely on them and to giving newborns as much of a chance as possible at being healthy, under the circumstances.

Children's ward

The in-patient rooms for children and adults consist of a handful of hospital beds and tables. Sometimes there are more patients than there are beds, Jue explained, so some have to sleep on the floor. The ailments they see at the clinic vary widely, she said. Sometimes it’s liver and kidney problems, heart disease, hypertension. During the rainy season, there is an increase in cases of malaria and dengue fever.

In patient room

The conditions at the clinic were quite basic. I thought of the few hospital visits I have had to make in my life, almost all of which were in the United States. The clean, sterile atmosphere, the curtains dividing the beds, the pillows, blankets, adequate amounts of food. Though I have visited a Chinese hospital in Beijing and found it lacking in a number of aspects, I had never visited anywhere like MTC before and it was difficult at first to reconcile the experiences.

One of the biggest impressions I was left with was how beautiful the people there were, and how quick they were to wave and smile. As we passed the children's recreation room, a group of young kids were holding hands and singing a song. Jue, who is from Burma's Karen state, smiled. "They're singing Karen songs," she said wistfully. The children singing amidst these conditions was bittersweet and I found myself once again fighting back tears.

Finding the silver lining

By the time we left the clinic, I was saddened by the amount of poverty and suffering I saw there but also inspired. Because of the work being done at Mae Tao Clinic, people who would otherwise go without have access to potentially life-saving health care and resources on keeping themselves and their families healthy.

The experience left me with the thought: in the face of so much suffering and sadness in the world, what can I do? Mae Tao Clinic is just one organization out of many around the world attempting to provide services and care for those who need it most. The volunteers and staff at MTC are proof of the goodness, generosity and empathy in the world and that’s what I want to be part of. The question is how…and I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

Young girls

Update: The man mentioned at the beginning of this piece was transferred from Mae Tao Clinic to a facility in Chiang Mai, where he underwent surgery, skin grafts and physical therapy. He spent six months in the hospital, and was recently released and is now continuing his recovery at home with his family.

Click here to learn more about donating to the Mae Tao Clinic. 

A moment of inspiration on the way out of Laos

Since first traveling in Southeast Asia earlier this year, I’ve taken a greater interest in the region, particularly, for some reason, in Burma. I’m not entirely sure what sparked the interest. Perhaps the sudden global focus on the small country, the mixed stories of great business opportunities and unspeakable horrors still being committed by the government against the Burmese people. I began to read books and articles about the country whenever I had the chance. But I still haven’t been, and up until a few days ago, had never spoken with anyone from there.

While volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, I worked alongside Burmese staffers but because of the language barrier, was unable to communicate with them outside of enthusiastic smiles and a few English words here and there.

While in Laos on a visa run last week, I had the opportunity to speak with a Burmese woman who was waiting in Vientiane to have a Thai work visa processed. The meeting was unexpected and inspiring, and has stayed with me since returning to Thailand.

This woman had been waiting for nearly a week to have her visa processed, as a series of bureacratic frustrations had cropped up and delayed her getting the document. She told me that because she is Burmese, she is only allowed to apply for a Thai visa at the embassy in Vientiane one time, a fact of which she had been unaware. Now she was there for the second time, banking on the kindness of someone in the embassy to give her a pass and put the application through anyway.

We spoke for a bit while I waited for my ride back to the border and out of Laos. She was hoping the additional documents she needed for her application would come through by the next day, and was looking at another four days in Laos, minimum. She laughed as she described her circumstances, in the way only a person who has accepted the frustrations of her situation and is trying to make the most of them does.

She told me a bit about her life in Burma, and how she had come to be applying for a Thai work visa in Laos in the first place.

She grew up in a rural area in Burma, and moved to Yangon to pursue her education. But, she told me, the cost of living was so high she needed to get a job, which meant extremely long days of work and study. She eventually crossed the border into Thailand and now works at a clinic in Mae Sot that serves Burmese refugees.

In addition to her day job and volunteer work, she is also studying online for a degree in sociology from an Australian university. But because she is still learning English, she is essentially studying a new language as well as working toward her degree.

Hearing her story prompted me to reflect on some of my own complaints about work in the past few months. That I was uninspired, unmotivated, felt directionless at times, unsure of what I want to come next. Suddenly I felt grateful to be in the position I am, to be more or less able to move wherever I want, and have the freedom and flexibility to do work I enjoy. Between visa issues, classes, work and personal demands, this woman said she “can’t see past tomorrow;” she has to go one day at a time.

Our conversation turned to life in her native country, and the changes, or lack thereof, seen in Burma since its opening up during the past year and a half.

“Maybe at the higher levels there has been change. But most people don’t see any difference. Life is still difficult,” she said. She added that it is extremely difficult for her to complete her studies or get any work done while in Burma, due to electricity shortages and slow, unreliable internet. Again, I thought about my own life and how if the wifi where I’m working goes down for five minutes, I’m aggravated and put out. And again, I realized I'm far more fortunate than I tend to appreciate.

“There is no trust,” she went on to say of the notoriously violent and repressive government. “For a long time in Burma, the people do not trust the government. Even when there is a cease-fire, the people don’t believe the soldiers won’t do anything.”

Our meeting was brief, but I was grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with this woman. Her determination to educate herself, help other people and her willingness to speak honestly about her hardships were humbling and inspiring.